Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, by Barbara Garson
“If you’re not a worker, not a consumer, and you don’t earn significant income from investments, then you don’t have much of a place in capitalist society. In the course of this recession millions more of us have slipped into that no place. Most of us will still manage to eat and keep our televisions connected. But it can’t be pleasant to live in a country whose elite have no regular use for us.” (pg. 269)
This quote, coming at the end of Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, captures the feeling of this book pretty well. And we’ll come back to this in a bit. In the meantime though, misery loves company, right? That must have been what I think I was thinking when I requested (and received) an advance readers copy of Down the Up Escalator from NetGalley.
(A disclaimer: this review is based on the audiobook narrated by Jeanine Klein as well as the print version from my library, which all the quotes are taken from.)
I’d imagine that the target reader for Down the Up Escalator is someone like me. Someone who has truly, honest-to-God been irreversibly financially impacted by the economy on each one of the three levels that Barbara Garson highlights in Down the Up Escalator – the housing/mortgage crisis (check), long term unemployment (check) and depletion of personal savings (annnnd, check!).
The personal stories of my peers are, indeed, at the heart of this book. As they should be. Those who Ms. Garson interviews span various demographic groups and have been impacted by the Great Recession. She traveled extensively across the country using her business and journalistic connections to find people affected by the housing crisis, who were unemployed or underemployed, who lost all their savings, who were seemingly in a state of shock that this had happened to hardworking, educated, middle class people like them. Without their stories, there wouldn’t be a book.
So, I certainly didn’t mind any of the profiles which are supported by statistics. I deeply understand the situations of almost every person in this book (except for the last few mentioned toward the end, who had pre-Recession wealth in the millions).
The reasons I related so well to this book are the same reasons why I had a really hard time with it.
Allow me to explain.
Down the Up Escalator has a very detached feeling in the personal stories. I struggled with this, because it wasn’t the stories themselves that were the problem. As I said, I could relate to them and the people behind them all too well. Instead, I think it’s this:
As a reader and as someone walking in the well-worn shoes of the people profiled in the book, the conversational, hey-let’s-have-lunch-and-chat-about-how-you’re-coping-with-the-recession interview format simply doesn’t work for me in Down the Up Escalator. I didn’t feel a single connection between the author and any of the people she interviewed, not even a GI that she met in a coffeehouse during the Vietnam War and reconnected with sporadically during the decades thereafter.
What Down the Up Escalator needed was a different structure, one with the focus more on the INDIVIDUALS and less on the verbal exchange between the author and subject. Because as it is, the result is way too much dialogue and interactions like these: (the “I” in the passages below is the author recounting her conversation with her interviewee):
“I wrecked Elaine’s mood by asking her to describe what happened on the day she was fired.
‘The word is not ‘fired!’
‘I’m sorry, I just meant …’
‘Someone is fired when they do something bad. I was laid off because they found a computer program to do the invoicing.’
I apologized, stammering that to me a layoff meant something temporary, like a seasonal layoff at a factory. If they weren’t going to call you back, then ‘layoff’ was a euphemism.
Feldman explained the term’s functional significance for him. ‘Laid off’ means you can still collect your severance and unemployment. You didn’t get fired for cause.’ (pg. 19)
“But bright, educated, unemployed people will surely drift into some kind of work eventually – won’t they?….At the rate at which full-time staff jobs are being phased out, the older long-term unemployed of this recession probably have less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding permanent, full-time jobs. But that’s statistics. All any individual needs is one job. (pg. 46)
…for all my intellectual grasp of the downward trends for American workers, I just can’t believe that these four generous/selfish, mellow/excitable, unique/ordinary, and highly employable individuals will simply remain the long-term unemployed. Even though they might.” (pg. 47)
and this, in a conversation with a guy unemployed for five months:
“‘Maybe something more interesting than banking might turn up in one of those businesses,’ I suggested. ‘Down the line, I mean, as the economy recovers. Why not put feelers out?’
That got no response.
‘Or what about teaching?’ I asked. ‘You seem to be good with children.’
Then I thought about all the teachers being laid off. What a stupid suggestion.” (pg. 103)
and this conversation, which comes across as somewhat patronizing, with a woman describing the frustration of trying to get through to her mortgage company on the phone:
“I was taking an Access-a-Ride back and forth to Manhattan, sometimes traveling four hours a day. Then you get home and call Ocwen, and it says, ‘The waiting time will be an hour and a half.’
‘They actually said an hour and a half?’ I asked dubiously.
‘Do you remember that, Samuel? They would say, ‘Waiting time two hours,’ ‘Waiting time two hours forty minutes.’ So you take your food upstairs and you sit on the phone after work; you sit on the weekends. I called for months and they would put me in a queue.’
‘You must have gotten through to somebody, sometime?’ I said.” (pg.132)
and finally, this, to talk-Internet radio show celebrity Richard Bey (my Philadelphia friends will remember him from “People Are Talking” back in the mid-80s) who lost all of his savings in a Madoff-type investment fund.
“Richard,” I couldn’t help asking, “didn’t you ever think of the risk of having all your money in one fund?”
“Yes, Barbara, I did think about it,” he said in answer to my annoying question.(pg. 239)
There’s obviously a disconnect here. The author simply appears to be trying too hard to empathize with those she’s interviewing. And it backfires, which erodes the book’s credibility.
Because if you haven’t tried (or desperately needed) to sell your underwater house as your personal housing bubble was being popped by anonymous fat-cat bankers, and if you haven’t sat across from an interviewer and had to answer why you left your last position that you were laid off from and then answer the follow up question of what you’ve been doing in the six or nine or twelve months since, I think you can’t really empathize and understand what that is like for someone who has.
I listened to most of Down the Up Escalator on audio. While Jeanine Klein seems to be a fine narrator, there was just … a tone to this that rubbed me the wrong way. I then went back and read many of the interview portions (including those above) that I had difficulty with. I had the same reaction each time. I’m not sure whether it was the nuances in the audio narration or the actual words in print, or my coming at this from a personal place, but I had the same bristling reaction every single time.
Let’s go back to the quote that opened this review: “In the course of this recession millions more of us have slipped into that no place. Most of us will still manage to eat and keep our televisions connected. But it can’t be pleasant to live in a country whose elite have no regular use for us.”
This is contradictory. We never get a sense in Down the Up Escalator of how the recession has personally impacted the author – which is fine because this isn’t a memoir. But because that’s missing, the empathy is lost. One runs the risk of appearing elitist when making statements like “It can’t be pleasant to live in a country whose elite have no regular use for us.”
No, it isn’t. It isn’t pleasant. IT FREAKING SUCKS.
We all have that friend, the one who means well but somehow always says the wrong damn thing. And that’s the impression I was left with from Down the Up Escalator. In no way, shape, or form, is this a feel-good book about our country’s economic future. It’s depressing as hell.
Perhaps there’s no better symbolism of that then the To Be Continued … portion of the book.
“I can’t quite bring myself to leave people I got to know personally – not to mention millions of others – in such distress. So I’ve created a Web site that we might call the ongoing book about the ongoing recession.
A book eventually gets printed. But no deadline stops me from getting back to individuals to find out how they’re getting along. Their updates, taken together, may also give us some idea how the country is getting along.
You can catch up with the folks you met in these pages at www.downtheupescalator.com.”
Except … well, you kind of CAN’T.
Because there ISN’T a website.
The link is broken. But, supposedly it’s coming soon. We’re to stay tuned.
Just like, I suppose, we’re still waiting for the end of the Great Recession that supposedly was over a few years ago.
2 stars out of 5